VAN CAMPING

Following a slightly alarming demonstration drive, our first van was bought in 1986. The Roma family selling this battered Transit parcel van wanted something that could carry a little more weight, and the price was very tempting. They had no illusions about the van’s qualities mind you, even before a deal was struck.

‘It’s rough, but should last you a year,’ the soon to be ex-owner suggested, with what turned out to be fairly accurate powers of prediction.

Our first van.
Our first van.

In many ways that van was a pretty tired old thing, great fun but tired, and a piston complete with its connecting rod, finally made a break for freedom almost exactly 12 months later. According to a friend riding a motorbike behind, the escape was pretty spectacular, with lumps of red-hot engine bouncing merrily across the road behind us. By then though, that brush-painted van had carried us on a healthy number of expeditions. The die, whatever that is, was cast. A useful motorbike and van combination was followed later by a car and van. Today we have just a van. The key element should be clear.

So, with a few large boxy vehicles (including another 12-month special from the same family) and something like 400,000 miles behind us, we’ve now visited 18 European countries by van. I never did keep a tally, but a recent quick calculation revealed that we’d spent well over a year in our last wagon alone, including at least three trips lasting a month or more. I think we can claim to know a little bit about van camping by now.

Northern Sweden, about 50 yards from the Norwegian border.
Northern Sweden, about 50 yards from the Norwegian border.

And I make a critical distinction here (or at least critical to us). We’ve never owned a camper van; one of those often quite large vehicles designed and fitted out for a single purpose. Perhaps I look for a bit more versatility from a vehicle, particularly one as roomy and useful as a van. As well as providing a mobile shelter we want ours to be able to move firewood, sofas, horse manure, motorbikes, bags of sand… and more firewood. When not on haulage duties we tend to refer to our unenhanced and still echo-y van as the tin tent.

Still, even if you choose to take the same minimalist approach, there are a few useful tweaks. These should ensure that your van, while ever ready for the next furniture removal task, is still available at the drop of a hat to set off again in its primary role – sheltering wanderers comfortably for a night or three.

So here are my suggestions for van camping.

First… and you’ll like this one… buy a van.

This seemingly facile proposal has more validity than you might suspect. It’s made in response to the surprising number of people I’ve met who have already spent a few summers saving for something just right. I might bump into them again a year or two later, and they’re still looking for the ‘right’ model or a something ‘just a little newer’, trying to pull just another few hundred pounds together. What they fail to notice (apart from those precious years rolling by) is that in the time they’ve waited, perhaps three times as much money has been spent on hotels and B+Bs, often in places they didn’t quite want to visit anyway.

My suggestion, just buy the best van you can and get out there. Apart from the freedom and the fun, the savings you’ll make will soon allow you to trade up if you really need to. In modern money, our first two vans, which managed two years of camping entertainment remember, probably cost about a grand, and that’s for both. Besides, buying something and using it will soon tell you all you need to know about what to look for once you have saved enough for something smart.

Vans don't have to be that big to do the job.
Vans don’t have to be that big to do the job.

One caution though – if you do envisage any foreign travel, most ferry operators place any van over 5m in length in a higher charge group. Those wavering for example between a short- or long-wheel-base VW Transporters take note.

Once you have your trusty tin tent I’d suggest you resist the temptation to start filling it with things. If you’re absolutely sure you’ll never need your van for anything else, then you might consider a little permanence, but even then, I’m not sure it’s necessary. There are one or two fixtures to consider though

With any new van, almost my first move is to fit some strapping up tight to the ceiling. Most vans have some form of attachment points close around the inner edge of the roof, some are even threaded to take bolts (less common on some modern models I’ve noticed, but with a little head-scratching and lateral thinking, a way can usually be found). Once some hooks or loops are in place, ideally in the top corners of the ‘living space’, either ratchet or cam straps can be woven to form a web, pulled tight up against the underside of the ceiling.

Our reason for doing this is to provide a convenient and near permanent home for our Thermarest mattresses (as the television commentary might put it, other makes are available). Safe up there, these mats can even be left in place when that next load of split ash or your friend’s sundial collection needs to be moved from one place to another.

Cam straps holding our sleeping mats out of the way. A good place to hang lights, and store head torches.
Cam straps holding our sleeping mats out of the way. A good place to hang lights, and store head torches.

On arrival at your chosen camping spot, the mats can simply be pulled free and laid down for a good nights rest. Another advantage of these straps is that they provide a convenient place to hang lanterns overhead where they are needed (or to store a head torch close at hand, where it can be found easily in the dark).

Collections of bungee-cords, criss-crossed tight against any spare interior wall, are also out of the way. These can also stay, ready to hold any loose piece of kit, at least light piece of kit, when it’s not in use. These multi-role tidiers are great for stowing waterproof coats, hats and gloves or even sleeping bags, keeping them out of harms way. Being unenclosed, stored items are also easy to find. I’ve often intended to try one of those small elasticated cargo nets – that is, until I compared the cost with another bungee-cord multipack deal.

For a short while, we slept on the floor. It soon became clear though, that with our enthusiasm for canoeing and hillwalking, and useful things like regular meals, we were sharing this sleeping space with quite a lot of kit. Meanwhile, there seemed to be quite a lot of room going to waste over our heads (even with mountain holdalls karabinered to some of those ceiling strap mountings – another good idea).

Our first ‘bed’ was a sheet of 8’x4’ construction grade ply, trimmed slightly to take account of minor van interior oddities, and propped on some boxes. These boxes, about twelve inches high, lifted the sleeping area, providing storage space inside for items not needed often, and space between them, out of the way below, for almost everything else. This system, with only minor tweaks, was used for nearly twenty years before I found a large sheet of insulation board, left over from a building project. Much lighter than the plywood, and with the edges taped to offer some protection against wear, this new sleeping platform has lasted about a year now, rather to my surprise. It is very cosy on cool nights.

A good view of our sleeping platform, propped up on boxes.  A lot of this kit can be stored out of the way underneath.
A good view of our sleeping platform, propped up on boxes. A lot of this kit can be stored out of the way underneath.

Even up on this platform, we still have plenty of headroom, at least while sitting. Experience has shown that by reducing this board to a sensible, yet still generous, sleeping area, we are able to sit on the edge, with our feet dangling over the side. This can help quite a bit on the comfort front. Boxes that are opened regularly, such as any carrying food supplies, can also now be left in the uncovered area at the end, where they are much easier to get at than stuck underneath.

We cook on a double gas ring, just a simple camping model, the 3.6kg gas bottle strapped under the platform (somewhere where we can reach the tap – always turning it off when it’s not actually feeding the stove). The stove just lies somewhere up on top. We usually cook on the end of the platform, the burners sat on top of a wooden box lid to protect the board itself, although I sometimes rig up some sort of a semi-permanent shelf to one side.

And you can carry things on top.
And you can carry things on top.

Water is stored in plastic bottles, usually bought from a supermarket in France or Spain. These can be used many times over. Depending on how long you plan to be away, a few small bottles are often much more convenient inside a van than a single large container. They are also much easier to refill.

For many years, a very valuable piece of kit has been our small refrigerated cool box. Bungee-corded (you probably can’t have too many of these) near the front, so that the lead can reach the cigarette lighter on the dash, this can be very useful, even in chillier climes. Like so many of our van camping kit choices, it has the advantage of being easily removable.

No real reason to show this one - I just like it.  Enjoying the sun in the Pyrenees.
No real reason to show this one – I just like it. Enjoying the sun in the Pyrenees.

Lastly, I’ll mention a small 12 to 240 volt converter.   Again fitted (this time with plastic pull ties) close to that lighter socket, this was once perhaps more important to a travelling writer and photographer than it would be to most campers. Today though, with so many items needing to be charged, I’m pretty sure most people would soon discover a use. This item of kit is also small enough to stay in the van permanently.

So there we are, my short guide to van camping, complete with what I hope are a few helpful hints.

Mind you, even all this seems a little long-winded. In the end, the essentials can be covered by the following suggestion – buy a van, chuck your sleeping bag in the back and drive.

In Spain.
In Spain.

 

BOSCASTLE (DARK AND WILD)

Not much of an incentive is needed to lure me across the border to Boscastle. It must be one of the prettiest little harbours in Britain. And while it might be quite a portage from the car park down to the water’s edge, the canoeing there is spectacular, set deep below the ragged encircling cliffs.

But first I had work to do, or at least a request to fulfil. And this was a shadowy task, one with more than a whiff of ancient drama and mystery. For this was Samhain (or Halloween), Samhain in Boscastle, and dark things come out to play down there as the sun begins to set, things that leap and howl – and I was there to photograph them.

For while I may spend much of my time somewhere empty, or at least empty of humans, photographing hills, rivers, woods and lakes, every now and again I’m called in from the margins to record the goings on nearer to civilisation. I rather enjoy it (so long as I can scamper back pretty soon). On this particular afternoon, as the light faded, I was to see what I could capture on film, or at least a digital version, close alongside the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic. To protect those of a delicate disposition, I’ll reproduce just the one image.

Beltane Border Morris.
Beltane Border Morris.

Having been sensible, drinking only a single pint of Cornish ale in the pub afterwards, I was up bright and early to witness a truly stunning morning, the sky a deep cloudless blue. With the portage shortened by a reasonably high tide, I met the sea close to the scene of the previous night’s revels.

A morning launch (those little waves are a little more worrying than they might suggest)
A morning launch (those little waves are a little more worrying than they might seem).

Following a couple of very still days, I had hoped to be able to push on out in the canoe, past the cliff-guarded harbour entrance to bask in the glorious views spread away across the open Atlantic. The waves that greeted my launch put this ambition in doubt. Only something pretty lumpy could survive the wriggly journey into this narrow refuge, yet still lift and tip foamily against the small beach. Two heavy stone breakwaters usually stop to most intruders.

As I made my way around the broad head of the first sea wall, it didn’t look too bad. Yes, there was a bit of broken water along the far cliff edge, but then there often is. Fortunately, knowing what it can be like just here, I took the precaution of waiting for a while, close to the second breakwater, just to see what was going on.

Perhaps I won't be heading much farther.
As suspected, and all a little more interesting than I was hoping for.

Which turned out to be a repeated sequence of waves, with two or three minutes of fairly lively yet paddlable water, interspersed by a collection of true whoppers. You could hear them breaking against the far side of the cliff, and if you risked a peek around the corner, the spray flying skyward at the harbour entrance gave pretty ample warning. From the moment this was seen, there was just time, to swing about and make fast for the sheltered inner side of the outer breakwater before these monster swells swept around the corner and hit the wall. Even once the tide had dropped to leave some ten or twelve feet of this sturdy stone defence clear of the water, these waves were still climbing cheerfully over the top.

The outer breakwater, doing it's job.
The outer breakwater, doing it’s job.

After maybe an hour of playing very large cat and very tiny mouse with these solid lumps of some past storm, I decided enough was enough, heading back to the sunny calm of the inner harbour. It was much more relaxing in there.

Much more relaxing.
All very peaceful in here.

October Oxford

As a couple who can make plans to spend a week in Scotland, yet still end up, only an hour after the expected departure time, setting off instead to canoe and clamber around Interlaken, I wasn’t too surprised when we didn’t see the Lake District in October. Plans, like rules, are meant for breaking after all.

In part, this failure to head north was the result of a good look at our home. With a tendency, given even the slightest opportunity, to head out the door, all too many jobs around the house and garden had been overlooked for… some time.

Gazing out towards Dartmoor, looming dark and inviting along the southern horizon, we were also reminded just how little time we spend on our own patch.  Not that we fail to hit the hills of Exmoor and Dartmoor on a fairly regular and frequent basis, or one of the more hidden stretches of our stunning Southwest coastline, but with the nose of our van pointed so often towards the bumpy bits of North Wales, the Lakes or beyond, we still tend to overlook what we have just beyond our gate.

We did end up in Oxford though.

Magdalen Bridge, Oxford, and a few punts.
Magdalen Bridge, Oxford, and a few punts.

You might not be surprised to learn that this visit wasn’t planned either, at least not until we found ourselves, unexpectedly of course, in London. Peering at a map in Shoreditch, it didn’t look far to the city of the dreaming spires, and if you discount the absolutely appalling traffic encountered along almost the entire length of the A40 (well it was just after 5.00 pm when we set off), it wasn’t. We arrived in time to cook and eat diner, then dig out the sleeping bags.

The next morning, as we looked out over the Thames, was grey and drizzly, but by the time we were on the water, the sun was starting to break through. And despite lying only just outside the city, the great open space of Port Meadow to the north makes the river alongside feel remarkably rural.

Hard to believe this is in the centre of Oxford.
Hard to believe this is in the centre of Oxford.

Logic might suggest that Oxford isn’t going to provide much in the way of the wilder spots usually experienced at the end of one of our van journeys, and of course logic would be right – but only just. Even deep in amongst the colleges, some of the waterways are wonderfully unkempt, home to stalking herons and cautious moorhens, lit up regularly by the streaky blue blaze of a kingfisher. I’d defy almost anyone finding themselves suddenly on one of the braided channels of the River Cherwell, even within a few hundred yards of Magdalen Bridge, to realise they were in a town at all.   Oxford offers a pretty magical place to canoe.

Looking out over Christ Church Meadow.
Looking out over Christ Church Meadow.

Of course many of the waterways winding through the town are very definitely urban, but Oxford urban, the banks overhung by age-softened medieval walls, the water, even in autumn speckled with punts, their occupants often wildly and cheerfully out of control. Some sections are far more citylike, even industrial, and in many ways it’s the variety in the paddling environment offered by Oxford that makes a visit so worthwhile.

After stepping ashore for a moment, to marvel at the bramble and willow jungle only yards behind the college boathouses, it was out onto the Thames again, working our way now back upstream. It can be quite a busy river here, and keeping a good watch stern, we stayed in close to the bank, allowing room for the many rowing eights, fours and skulls being propelled in a serious way up and down the river.

Borrowing a college boathouse pontoon on the Thames.
Borrowing a college boathouse pontoon on the Thames.

By now, with the sun heading fast for the horizon, and the autumn air starting to cool, it was time to wend our way back. Cruising beneath bridges both old (and pretty) and new (and not), we made our way past marinas full of languishing river cruisers, and remet Osney Lock. Here, the keeper (since made redundant of course) once invited us into the cavernous majesty of his charge. As he wound open the valves above us, our canoe was the only vessel to rise slowly to the height of river beyond. This time we carried round, before continuing on the last leg of the journey back to our waiting red van.